Thursday 26 April 2018

Dreamy athletic minds see Rio on the horizon

Rio’s Olympic Stadium, pictured in November 1,000 days before the start of the Games
Rio’s Olympic Stadium, pictured in November 1,000 days before the start of the Games

John O'Brien

IN the spring of 2009, Gary Keegan, the director of the Institute of Sport, welcomed a guest at his office in Abbottstown. Back then the national sports campus had an eerie feel about it, a couple of grey monochrome buildings dotted among acres of lush green fields with the towering beast of the National Aquatic Centre in the distance. In the crisp, north Dublin air, the whiff of sporting excellence didn't exactly stand out.

The Institute's offices in the old state laboratory hadn't much of a sporting theme about them. In the foyer, they kept a large glass-encased model of the campus in all its finished glory, though whether anybody harboured much faith in the grandiose political promises was a moot point. For Keegan it was mostly about the people, their drive and enthusiasm for the project. In their energy and passion, he saw hope for a better future.

Fast forward four years as we approach the mid-point of another Olympic cycle. Take a trip up the Snugborough Road now and a changed scene greets you: manicured fields only waiting for chalked lines and goalposts and the hustle and harrying of players of every code. Bright new buildings, administrators making plans, visions taking shape. Athletes pouring through the main gate to avail of world-class facilities and services provided by highly-skilled professionals. The scent of high-performance sport filling your nostrils.

"I go there regularly for physio," explains swimmer Barry Murphy, "and I'd bump into the likes of Gavin Noble, Darren O'Neill and Natalya Coyle, people I've read about in the papers. You'd have a chat and get to know them. That's a great environment to be in. I was away from that before London and didn't know many people there. It helps to create a team atmosphere. It has to have a positive impact going into Rio."

Little things. This month, Murphy will receive the keys to a new house beside the NAC where he trains. He'll share with three other elite swimmers. There are plans to build more athlete accommodation on the campus. Murphy is also part of a newly-formed athletes' commission which meets regularly with the Olympic Council of Ireland and gives athletes a say in critical decisions about their future. Changed times indeed.

Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe, 29th in the modern pentathlon in London, thinks of how much things have changed within the space of a year. Twelve months ago his sporting life was a non-stop carousel, pulled all over the place to squeeze training sessions into days that never seemed to have enough hours. It didn't take an expert to glance over his daily training routine and wonder whether burn-out wasn't the logical conclusion.

Now you find a more structured and focused athlete, confident enough to forego the World Championships in November and the hit on ranking points that entailed. He remembered the 2012 Olympic champion doing something similar before London, opting for a quiet, stealthy build-up approaching the Games. Away from competition, he's had time to let a couple of niggles heal and to work on his technique. Little things that will bring payback down the line.

When the equestrian centre in the campus was officially unveiled in October, they had to face a few snarky and predictable comments about the money being better spent elsewhere, but the difference it has made to their lives is huge. Lanigan-O'Keeffee estimates that he can do 80 per cet of all his training in Abbottstown now, a far cry from the manic figure dashing around the city to keep up with his routine.

"It saves an incredible amount of time," he says. "Last year I was training all over Dublin and some days you'd spend up to three hours in a car, just driving around to different places. Now we have a rented hall in Abbottstown where we can practise our fencing and shooting. You can chill for half an hour and then go for a swim or get some physio. There's a really great vibe around the place."

Listen. Nobody says Irish sport is in a perfect place right now. Far from it. But a general sense of well-being is palable, a growing awareness that it has never been more possible to be a full-time athlete here and still aspire to compete on the biggest international stages. Some will still choose to take the foreign route: Sycerika McMahon and Jason Smyth to name just two. But athletes have options now that once didn't seem plausible. The well-worn US scholarship route isn't the be-all and end-all it used to be.

"It's encouraging when you see the likes of Rob Heffernan, Fionnuala Britton and Barry Murphy performing well," says Paul McDermott, the Irish Sports Council's high performance director, "because it shows Irish-based athletes delivering results using Irish-based systems and service providers. You have the hockey out in UCD, a lot of activity in DCU and the campus is beginning to take shape. There's an awful lot happening here at the moment."

All this activity begs a critical question, of course. How it translates into improved performances and more podium finishes at major championships. The evidence suggests, though, that this is already happening. McDermott doesn't have a final tally for the year just past, but he's confident it was the best ever year for Irish sport in terms of medals. Heffernan, Annalise Murphy and event rider, Aoife Clark, all delivering breakthrough performances, the boxing team coming up with the goods again, as we have come to expect.

"In 2013, there were more podium finishes across a number of sports than ever," McDermott says. "In boxing there were upwards of 20 including all levels and another 15 in Paralympics. There was comfortably more than 60 which is a jump of 10 to 20 on the last three or four years. The year ahead might be a bit quieter. You'd be looking to the European athletics championships and the world rugby sevens for good performances. You'd like to see the momentum being maintained."

Two years out from Rio, the easiest prediction to make -- aside from Katie Taylor starting favourite to retain gold -- is that Ireland will send its largest ever team to an Olympics, comfortably surpassing the 66 who competed in London. The novelty of a couple of golfers for starters, whose identity will continue to be a diverting mini-saga for some time yet. Whichever flag Rory McIlroy opts to play under, though, he will inevitably be chalked down as an Irish medal prospect.

There's also the intriguing prospect of the women's rugby sevens team making the cut and it would be disappointing if at least one Irish hockey team -- both men and women are ranked No 15 in the world -- didn't make it. The agony of coming within two seconds of reaching London will surely galvanise the men when the qualification process starts in America next February. The women travel to Uruguay and will, like their male brethren, enjoy the privilege of by-passing the first qualifying phase by dint of their world ranking.

First up on the qualifying trail, though, are the showjumpers who get a first stab at the World Equestrian Games in France in August and would dearly love to nail it first time. Failure to qualify for London left a gaping wound, only partially salved by Cian O'Connor's individual bronze. O'Connor has been reunited with his Olympic horse, Blue Loyd, and if the best Irish horses stay sound and avoid being snapped up by oil-rich middle eastern sheikhs waving large cheque-books, they will be bitterly disappointed to miss out a second time running.

"That's the risk," says Ireland team manager, Robert Splaine. "Our best horses being sold. But we've always been a trading nation. You can't begrudge people if generous offers come in. That's the nature of the industry. Last year was a good one for us so you'd always be hopeful. We learned an awful lot about our horses for major championships."

Learning about what it takes to compete against the world's best is the key, of course. And boxing, as ever, leads the way. If last year brought the crushing blow of losing John Joe Nevin to the professional ranks, it wasn't entirely unexpected and it was partially cushioned by the performances of Jason Quigley and Paddy Barnes at the World Championships in Kazakhstan. For all the talk of others joining Nevin in the money game, it seems unlikely there'll be many defections before Rio.

For McDermott, the truly eye-catching display in Kazakhstan wasn't Quigley's silver, for all its lustrous glory, but Belfast heavyweight Tommy McCarthy reaching a quarter-final, just one bout shy of a medal. It was another ringing endorsement for a high-performance programme that, once again, had helped a talented but raw fighter ascend another notch on the world stage.

"Every sport has talented under-21s and juniors," McDermott says, "but it's about taking the next leap forward. That's the thing about boxing. They are able to do that consistently. Getting Tommy McCarthy to a World quarter-final was a brilliant coaching performance. He was a highly-rated junior, a very talented boxer, but you have to learn how to take that to the next level. That's what you want to see in other sports."

He sees little signs of hope. Sports like athletics, swimming and cycling taking significant strides in the way they manage their athletes. After a tough Olympics, swimming has regathered itself and was rewarded with Murphy's European short-course bronze in December and Fiona Doyle's eye-catching silver at the World University Games in July. At the latter championships, athletes like Amy Foster, Brian Gregan, Ciara Everard and Jessie Barr showed glimpses of potential. As more and more athletes show themselves capable of running fast times, nobody bitches about A and B standards anymore.

"What you want from sports is getting athletes to the Games in a position to produce performances of an international standard," says McDermott. "Can we get people into finals? That would be great. You have to remember we've a small talent pool here so you just hope our athletes stay injury free. Nobody is making promises. If the athletes can deliver to high standards, that's all you ask."

And so the clock ticks relentlessly onwards. The days counting down and the sandy beaches of Rio looming large in dreamy athletic minds. "Last year it felt kind of far away," says Lanigan-O'Keeffe. "It was a bit harder to motivate yourself. Now it's like you're over the mountain and it's almost right there in front of you. It feels weirdly close. You do think about it everyday."

Think about this too: as things stand Ireland will likely approach the 2016 Olympics with more world medalists than ever before, with better prepared athletes readied by coaches ever improving under the guidance of the Institute's world-class podium programme led by Keegan and Daragh Sheridan. It isn't about building unrealistic expectations or heaping pressure, merely about the investment being made in terms of money and people and the reasonable assumption of a decent return from that.

Too soon to talk about medals, though. It's enough to say that Irish sport has emerged from the long grass, from the years of neglect and bickering that blazed in public once every four years, that Irish sports officials increasingly sing from the same hymn sheet now and that, better late than never, things are finally moving in the right direction. Two years out from Rio, that is assuredly a blessed thing to say.

Irish Independent

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